"We talked about kicking and visualization," Bucchianeri says. "I remember practicing the kicks in my head. You'd be on the field by yourself, alone. You see the ball set up. You position yourself behind the ball. O.K.: one step, two step, one half step back. Stop. Look up. Line the ball up with the goalpost. Take a deep breath. Take a half step over. Look at the ball. Bend over. Head down. Arch your back. See the ball. Go through the kick motion. Slow motion. Parallel pull. Get the leg to snap. Hit the ball with the leg locked. Follow through! Go through it over and over and over."
Bucchianeri was his own lord of self-discipline, and he figures he burst at least 10 balls a year in high school, pounding them toward a distant tree in his yard or, on summer days, drilling them through the goalposts at Ringgold High. District athletic director Paul Zolak—the father of New England Patriot reserve quarterback Scott Zolak—could set his watch by the boy. "I'd be driving down the hill, and there'd be Ryan, kicking by himself," says Zolak. "He did it every day. Every day."
He was on an endless quest for the perfect kick, the unflawed set and rhythm. Its message is instantaneous. "You feel it through your whole being," Bucchianeri says. "It reverberates up your leg and through your body. You know that it is the perfect kick." If part of him perceives the act as a form of art—"There's a beauty in kicking, it's graceful, like a dance," he says—he always approached it as a mechanical science. Ask him how a 5'9" 150-pounder can launch a football 60 yards, and his brow furrows as he begins: "My legs are small but quick. You see, force equals mass times acceleration. The force you put into the ball, the explosion, is equal to the mass of my leg times how fast I whip it into the ball. The acceleration is how I compensate for lack of mass."
No one who saw him at practice in high school was ever quite certain whether he was trying to split the uprights or the atom. Ryan was meticulous to a fault. One day he set up a videotape machine at practice so he could study his form, and assistant coach George Overton wandered over to watch him. "He was so intense," Overton recalls. As a lark, Overton said at one point, "Booch, it doesn't look right." The boy turned with a look of panic and blurted, "What doesn't look right? What doesn't look right?"
That he wanted everything to be clear and precise and unmistakable often drove his high school coach, Joe Ravasio, to distraction. Nothing delighted Ryan's teammates more than one of his hairsplitting exchanges with Ravasio. One day the coach asked Ryan to squib a kickoff—to make the ball bounce a few times—against an opponent lined up in a 5-3-3 tier.
Ryan: You want me to kick it between the first and second line or the second and third line?
Ravasio: Ryan, I don't care where you kick it! I just want the ball to hit the ground.
Ryan: You want it left or right?
Ravasio: Ryan, are you listening to me? I don't care what side you kick it on. I want you to squib it. Bounce it on the ground!
Ryan: Well, Coach, how many times do you want it to bounce? Three times, four?